Essences were previously thought to be nothing more than watery fluid, essence – a skin-care product that is ubiquitous in Korea and Japan. Pic: Eric Helgas/The New York Times
It has been called “miracle water,” but an essence — the beauty product that’s considered an integral step in Korean and Japanese skin-care routines — is no water.

Nor is it a toner, serum or moisturizer. An amalgam of all of the above, this all-in-one has elicited both praise and scepticism since it entered the U.S. beauty market from Asia about seven years ago.

It feels like water, but it instantly increases the skin’s hydration 

How It Works

An essence is applied to a clean face, prepping the skin to effectively absorb subsequent products, like serum and moisturizer. 

How Essences Were Conceived

It’s hard to pinpoint its first use or its origin, but documentation in Japan can be traced to “Miyakofuzoku kewaiden,”an 1813 guide to centuries-old geisha beauty rituals. There are references to beauty waters, which were botanicals extracted from an alchemical still or a tea-kettling system.

In 1897, Shiseido became the first Japanese brand to bring an essence to market with Eudermine, or Shiseido’s Red Water, and it led to the ubiquity of branded essences all over Asia.

Though they’re so deeply ingrained in Asian beauty regimens, essences have been slow to be embraced in the west, which mostly has to do with cleansing routines: to reach for soap and water rather than an oil cleanser to dissolve oil-based makeup.

Alcohol-heavy toners were invented to remove the last traces of makeup your soap left behind, which causes a cooling, tightening effect, after which a rich moisturizer is applied.
While that works as the final step, if you don’t hydrate the skin first, there’s nothing to seal into the skin.

Asians never strip the skin, they plump it up with micronutrients, and seal it with a light moisturizer — it’s much closer to the natural balance of the skin.

Estée Lauder introduced its Micro Essence Skin Activating Treatment Lotion in 2014; La Prairie released its Skin Caviar Essence-in-Lotion in 2016; and the Korean brand Missha reformulated its best-selling First Treatment Essence Intensive to include moisture-enabling ingredients, like Himalayan purple barley, in 2017

Fresh, a natural beauty label, introduced its take with Black Tea Kombucha Facial Treatment Essence this year.

Are They Worth the Money?

Light in weight and fast absorbing, essences range in texture (from watery to a viscous consistency) and objectives, with some created to target a specific concern, like vitamin C to even out skin tone, niacinamide and peptides to combat signs of aging, or alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs) to remove dead skin cells.

Many believe that essences are the single biggest game-changing and the gentlest thing you can do for your skin.”